Alan Moore was right. There isn’t a movie in his landmark graphic novel “Watchmen” -- at least not a really good one. What we get instead is something acceptable but pedestrian, an adaptation that is more a prisoner of its story than the master of it.
The difficulty is not with a lack of fidelity to this dark tale’s narrative about an apparent plot to eliminate costumed superheroes from the alternative reality America they’ve protected and defended. The changes to the story, including updating its 1985 situations to include a subplot about the energy crisis, are so nonessential that you might wonder why Moore has, in addition to taking his name off the project, vowed to “spit venom all over” the film version.
Director Zack Snyder’s nonstop public pledges of fidelity to the story notwithstanding, the core of what made “Watchmen” “Watchmen,” what turned it into the only graphic novel to land on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels, is by its nature next to impossible to re-create on screen, even with a 2-hour and 41-minute running time.
For “Watchmen” on the page has the kind of structural denseness and complexity, a heft and texture that are difficult for film to deliver. Moore and his co-creator, artist Dave Gibbons, added layers on top of layers to the story, for instance ending each of the 12 chapters with different kinds of printed textual material, including book chapters and psychiatric reports. There is even a comic-within-a-comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter,” now scheduled to become a separate animated piece with its own DVD release.
All these elements, and more, inform, expand on and comment about the core story in an almost Talmudic way. As Gibbons himself has said, the graphic novel “became much more about the telling than the tale itself. The plot itself is of no great consequence . . . it just really isn’t the most thrilling thing about ‘Watchmen.’ ”
To be fair, on the other hand, “Watchmen’s” plot is in no way chopped liver, and reverentially sticking to the source material, as the first “Harry Potter” films did, is the only thing that gives this film what watchability it has. Even if you haven’t read the book, even if your first exposure to the story is in this denatured form, you can at least sense the power of the original, and that’s what will stay in your mind, not what’s on the screen.
The story, as scripted by David Hayter and Alex Tse, begins, as all good mysteries do, with a murder. A man named Edward Blake, otherwise known as the superhero the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is brutally killed in October 1985, and lots of people want to know why. This murder takes place in an alternative universe very much like our own but with key differences. Richard Nixon is an American president in both, but in the “Watchmen” world he’s been elected to five terms. This universe has a tradition of masked crime fighters. A group of them banded together in the 1940s as the Minutemen, and another group was formed decades later.
Since the 1977 passage of the Keene Act, this new generation of so-called vigilantes has been forced to retire, and that’s what Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) have done. Still active, each in his own way, are the most compelling of the group, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley).
Dr. Manhattan, once physicist Jon Osterman, is the only being in the “Watchmen” world with true superpowers, courtesy of your standard scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. Often seen pale blue and naked (don’t ask), the good doctor is a master of space and time, capable of bending matter to his will. He works for the government now, serving, among other things, as a one-man shield against the ever-increasing possibility of Russian nuclear attack.
At the other end of the spectrum is the hunted Rorschach, the sociopathic terror of the group, given to writing things in his journal like “the night reeks of fornication and bad consciences.” With his face a mask of shifting inkblots, he is the first to suspect that “somebody’s gunning for masks” and the first to investigate what that might mean.
Given that this is just the hint of an outline of “Watchmen’s” complexities, it’s not clear what any director could have done with the material, though many big names, including Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass, were given a shot. Though Snyder does not exactly embarrass the material, his selection has not had inspiring results.
For one thing, Snyder has been unable to create a satisfying tone for the proceedings. While the graphic novel played everything as realistically as it could, the film feels artificially stylized and inappropriately cartoonish. That, in turn, undercuts the film’s key point that these superheroes have very human flaws and limitations.
With only “Dawn of the Dead” and “300" in his feature background, Snyder does not have a lot of experience with emotional reality and, except for Haley’s bravura performance as the lunatic Rorschach, that hurts everyone.
Unlike “300,” which was visually striking (albeit moronic dramatically), “Watchmen” plays it safe cinematically. Despite being prematurely canonized by the film’s publicity apparatus, Snyder stands revealed here as more of a beginner than a visionary in his uncertain approach to making an on-screen world come alive. His decision to up the novel’s violence quotient to at times grotesque levels doesn’t help.
Ultimately, however, it’s hard to fault anyone for this “Watchmen’s” disappointments. It’s not a wasted opportunity; it never should have been turned into a film in the first place. But when hundreds of millions of fanboy dollars are at stake, that is not going to happen. Maybe in an alternative reality, but not in ours.
MPAA rating: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release